The Merry Month of July: Anxiety, Bitterness & NHL Free Agency

We are not yet a full week into that annual rite of carnage known as NHL Free Agency, and already the emotions have taken hold over reason, and comments ranging from the simply terse to the outright venomous are spewing from loyalists of involved (and uninvolved) teams.  Slightly more measured expressions of angst are emanating from NHL front offices, as developments fail to meet expectations.  Add in some record heat-waves across the continent, resulting power outages and other complications, and it becomes easy to see how the whole process becomes a bubbling cauldron of thinly-disguised emotion.  While this is an entertaining spectacle in most years, it is particularly noteworthy this year, as the juxtaposition of these antics with the newly-commenced CBA negotiations is almost too delicious for words.

To examine the process, and the equal parts of legitimacy and lunacy that accompany it, we will delve into a couple of the more extreme circumstances that have arisen thus far, and contrast these with a more mundane transaction, hopefully demonstrating that the entire process can be conducted with a modicum of sanity.   (Note to the Twitterverse: please pay particular attention to my use of “thus far” – despite your apparent belief to the contrary, there is no rule requiring that free agency and trades be completed on July 1. )

Of course, the starting point for the discussion has to be the Minnesota Wild’s July 4th signing of free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, which has been portrayed as everything from The Second Coming to Armageddon.  Apropos of my introductory remarks, this tableau must be framed by the following quote from Wild owner Craig Leipold, issued less than 90 days ago (April 11, 2012), a quote which has been wielded as a club in various media outlasts since the Independence Day Massacre:

We’re not making money, and that’s one reason we need to fix our system.  We need to fix how much we’re spending right now.  .  . .revenues are fine.  . . . And so the revenue that we’re generating is not the issue as much as our expenses.  And the biggest expense by far is player salaries.  [Minneapolis Star Tribune]

Right, Craig.  Got it.  So that $196 million you just spent to secure the services of Suter and Parise  – which would purchase the Phoenix Coyotes – is what, precisely?  A capital improvement, as opposed to an expense?  You might have a tussle with the IRS over that one.   Of course, as is the fashion these days, Leipold can take refuge in the dreaded “cap hit” – which is only a bit over $7.5 million for each player.  Never mind that the combined $15 million hit for two players consumes just over 21% of the projected salary cap of $70.2 million for next season – or that these are  13-year contracts, which will take both players to their 40th birthdays.  Granted, we are seeing more of that these days, particularly with defensemen, but history teaches that very few players remain on the ice at age 40, and most of those are defensemen and goaltenders. (Apologies to the Dallas Stars, who have signed 40-year olds Ray Whitney and Jaromir Jagr.  Twitter sources suggest an offer for Gordie Howe is pending . . . )

Let’s face it – these deals are illusions of the highest order, and are precisely what Leipold was railing against in April. $35 million is being paid over the first three years, and $88 million over nine, at which point Parise & Suter will be 36.  Let’s be serious – the chances of them being with the Wild at or beyond that point are nil, and their productivity, in all likelihood, will be on the downward slope.  In the absolute, none of this is shocking or surprising – except that it came from Minnesota, rather than the Rangers, Red Wings, Penguins, Flyers or one of the other usual suspects.  So, to the extent that this signing brings mid-size markets into the fray, it is likely a good thing.  However, you can count on the fact that the NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr will be wearing a T-shirt with the contract terms emblazoned on the front to every CBA negotiating session, and will pummel the NHL owners with it every time they bring up a reduction in the revenue allocation to the players.  For their part, the owners should wear Lemmings T-Shirts, as their ability to stage mass economic suicide at precisely the wrong time is truly astounding. (I’m not even going to address the Justin Schultz fiasco . . . )

I do have to give credit to the Wild for accomplishing an unintended side-benefit in this deal.  It served to expose the legion of false Twitter “insiders”, who were unconditionally and pompously pronouncing the Penguins and Red Wings as the winners for Parise and Suter, respectively.   TSN’s Darren Dreger put one such pretender squarely in his place, and the movement appeared to pick up momentum.  It won’t stop these sad little people, of course, but to the extent it exposes the charlatans, I’m grateful for the impact.  But I digress . . .

Predictably, the reactions to the Parise/Suter signings were swift and extreme.  Nashville GM David Poile, who has gone from “GM of the Year Finalist” in June to a nightmarish off-season, was restrained in his words, if not in his tone:

I think disappointment would not adequately describe the word I would like to choose . . . Disappointed and a little surprised based on all the conversations we’ve had. [The Tennessean]

Predators’ RFA defenseman Shea Weber was characterized by his agent as being in a “state of disbelief” over the deal, and one can only imagine what net minder Pekka Rinne is feeling, after committing to his own long-term deal.

New Jersey’s Lou Lamiorello had a similar tone in his reaction to losing his captain and key offensive threat:

There’s no question we’re disappointed . . .It’s a very unfortunate thing when you have a player of his stature that’s come right through the ranks and then, at this given time, a decision is made to go elsewhere. . . We’ll do what we can to go to Plan B [Associated Press]

Fans, of course, are not so constrained in their expressions of opinion, and were not shy in expressing them.  While the Minnesota contingent was understandably jubilant, Devils and Predators fans, as well as those disappointed hopefuls in other NHL cities, were considerably less charitable.  As the rumor mill churned, and the prospect of a single team landing both players emerged, terms such as “collusion”, “betrayal” and “tampering” began to emerge, along with the inevitable comparisons to the Miami Heat signings of James, Bosh and Wade.  The bitterness was palpable, and the excess was apparent.  Still, most extremes embed smaller kernels of truth, and the same holds true here.  In Parise’s case, he was more than another free agent forward.  He was the team captain, so his defection carries a sharper sting, and brings the concept of loyalty into the discussion.  Certainly, in this day and age, few would expect a player to leave millions and millions on the board out of loyalty, but all indications suggest that this was not the case here.  Parise and Suter have both vehemently denied that money was the motivating factor, and insist that this was all about “going home.”  Maybe, but with $98 million reasons to head to the Midwest, the assertion rings a bit hollow.  It is also, conveniently, a factor that competitors for their services cannot challenge.

A more interesting avenue of exploration involves the “tampering” suggestion.  While Section 15 of the NHL By-Laws prohibits teams from tampering with or publicly discussing players under contract elsewhere, “tampering” is seldom associated with players themselves.  After all, Suter and Parise were free agents – they could do as they pleased.  Right?  Uh . . . not entirely.  Check out Section 10 of the Standard Player Contract:

The Player agrees he will not tamper with or enter into negotiations with any Player under SPC or reservation to any Club of the League for or regarding such Player’s current or future services, without the written consent of the Club with which such player is connected under penalty of a fine to be imposed by the Commissioner of the League.  [NHL CBA, Exhibit 1, Page 249]

Well, now.  Both Suter and Parise have been relatively forthcoming about their respective “Gee, wouldn’t it be cool if we played together?” As reported by Greg Wyshynski at Puck Daddy, Parise made the following statement:

Ryan and I had talked throughout the year. At the time, you always say to each other, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to play with each other? To play on the same team?’ Was it realistic? You have to have the availability . . .

Ryan Suter (Flickr/bridgetds)

Hmm . . .”throughout the year” seems pretty direct. Will it result in any action?  Doubtful.  It’s a slippery slope, and ultimately unprovable in most settings – though Parise may have imprudently gone further in his candor than he should have.  With all of the other issues that will occupy the CBA negotiators – including issues relating to contracts of this type – the NHL probably does not want to open this can of worms.  I wouldn’t be surprised, however, if both gentleman had the opportunity to have a closed-door conversation with the Commissioner about this sequence of events.

One interesting thing about the Parise/Suter situation is the relative lack of the “He’s not worth it!” contingent. Sure, there are those (myself included), who bemoan the 13-year term as salary cap evasion, but it is only that term that renders the compensation reasonable.  Still, there has been less outcry about the player/value proposition than I would have expected.   This sits in stark contrast to the other extreme of the free agency/trade profile – the continuing saga of Rick Nash.

As we prepare to embark upon the second week of July, Rick Nash remains the Captain of the Columbus Blue Jackets, and the more vocal aspects of the Columbus fan base are furious.  Never mind that nobody really  knows what offers have been made, by whom, or even which teams are on Nash’s roster of acceptable clubs.  GM Scott Howson (primarily) and Nash himself (secondarily) are taking a rhetorical beating for not having a deal done.  In the Twitter-fueled maelstrom, Howson and the Blue Jackets are being excoriated for having the temerity to ask a lot in return for Nash’s services.  Unlike the Parise situation, cries of “He’s not worth it!”  dominate the discussion.  Again, however, nobody except the parties involved truly know what has been demanded or offered in the Turkish Bazaar that is the NHL trade market.

Consider this – since the lockout Zach Parise has played in 502 regular season games, and has notched 194 goals and 216 assists for 410 points.  Over that same time frame, Nash has 231 goals, 220 assists and 451 points in 520 games.  Both wore the “C” for their teams.  Both have starred for their national teams.  Nash is six weeks older than Parise, and carries a $7.8 million cap hit on a non-front loaded deal that runs for six more years.  Yet people cannot throw money at Parise fast enough, while Howson has to dodge the pitchforks and torches for daring to ask for a high return for Nash.

Sure, there are some key differences.  As free agents, Parise & Suter require “only” money to secure their services, and their former clubs hold no sway over the discussions.  Nash is not a free agent, so interested teams need to surrender existing resources to get him, and that’s always a tougher sell.  However, as a player under contract, the Blue Jackets are under no compulsion to trade him at all, which theoretically increases his value, as does the fact that there are only a few elite forwards on the block this year, and the major rival – Parise – has been claimed.  Of course, Nash’s NMC and his “Approved List” temper that phenomenon a bit, as does his apparent desire to leave Columbus.   The overall anonymity of the Columbus market likely accounts for some of the divergent reaction to the availability of Parise & Nash.

Clearly, Howson has had some major missteps in his tenure as the Columbus GM, arguably including his public airing of the fact that Nash had requested a trade.  While Nash claimed the trade offer was to “help the franchise”, that statement is also encountering a healthy dose of skepticism among the fan base, who are increasingly putting Nash in the cross-hairs of their ire.  The theory here is that “The List” is precluding a deal.  Unfortunately, there is no indication that any deal has actually been presented to Nash for approval/rejection, so the ire is, at best, premature.  When an offer is presented to him, it will sorely test the veracity of his desire to “help the team” by leaving.

Here is a quiz.  Is Scott Howson catching fire for a) trading Nash, b) not trading Nash, c) taking too long to trade Nash, d) asking too much for Nash, e) asking too little for Nash, f) being a bad General Manager, g) all of the above.   The correct answer is (g) all of the above.  Somehow, a very vocal segment of the fan base has imposed a deadline on a Nash deal, which has now passed.   The vitriol from fans of other teams, chiding Howson’s audacity, is used as further justification to criticize Howson.  The trouble is, nobody has any facts to back up their anger.  Trade negotiations, particularly for elite talent, involve finely tuned rituals, which include frequent expressions of outrage at the extreme demands lodged by the other party.  Ultimately, as the supply/demand curve moves, and time becomes an enemy, rather than an ally, the parties move off of extreme positions and reach a deal.  Those who drop out early on were never serious to begin with – but it never hurts to ask.

Sure, Howson is playing a bit of a dangerous game here, betting that Parise’s signing will enhance the offers for Nash.  The thought of Nash returning to Columbus in the fall, wearing the “C” or

The face of the franchise, Rick Nash (Dave Gainer/THW)

otherwise, is untenable at this point.  Too many bridges have been burned, and the club desperately needs to move in a new direction.  Saddling coach Todd Richards with the Nash albatross at this point would be unfair and unwise.  Bobby Ryan and Alexander Semin are wild cards here, as their signing with one of Nash’s target teams would put a dent in any leverage Howson holds.  However, plenty of clubs remain who would love Nash’s services — the only question being the price.

Clearly, the fan base is suffering from the fatigue generated by a 30th place finish, disastrous performances in goal and the entire Jeff Carter fiasco, none of which operate to Howson’s favor – nor should they.  Howson has a well-deserved reputation for being reluctant to pull the trigger on big deals, and fans seeing reports of teams like Ottawa and Carolina removing themselves from the picture grow concerned about another massive failure.  Howson and Senior Advisor Craig Patrick need to tune into that phenomenon, and be careful not to overplay their hand.  While Nash is a star who will add much to any franchise, his shelf-life is not infinite.   While the extreme reactions of the fan base are unwarranted based upon known facts and current events, they are similarly understandable, given past history.   Fair market value is the price that a willing buyer will pay to a willing seller, with neither party under duress.  In this setting, both sides would be under some duress, but the time is rapidly coming when the offers on the table are going to establish the market value.  The owner of an asset always perceives the asset has having the most value, and the actions of the marketplace are often required to convince otherwise.

Ironically, Scott Howson was one of the architects of a more mundane deal that bears none of the baggage of salary cap circumvention, glaring media hype or other special circumstances.  It was, as the crew at NHL Home Ice proclaimed, a “pure hockey deal.”  The Jackets sent defenseman Marc Methot to the Ottawa Senators for forward Nick Foligno.  The deal met the Senators’ need for a stay-at-home blue liner, while the Blue Jackets are desperately searching for offensive help – particularly if Nash is to find a new home.  Methot carries a $3 million cap hit, and Columbus signed RFA Foligno today for a $3.05 million hit.  Both teams are gambling a bit that the players have not yet displayed their best play, and both will be placed in new positions of greater responsibility. Twitter has been relatively placid, bordering on laudatory, concerning this deal, which shows that deals that are allowed to develop outside of the public eye, and are presented to the public eye with facts, rather than conjecture, receive a more open-minded reception.  See – it can be done. It just seldom is done anymore.

 

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